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Ageless Aviation flights continue Memorial Day tradition

By David Freeze
For the Salisbury Post

Gene Hobbs went ashore on the second day of the D-Day invasion at Normandy. He was wounded in the arm and had to return to England for medical care.

Once healed and ready to go, Hobbs was asked if he wanted to return to his same unit or be assigned to another one. Hobbs asked to be sent back to his regular unit in anticipation of seeing his friends.

“Once I returned, I didn’t know anybody,” Hobbs said. “They all were gone and new soldiers had replaced them.”

Later when sent out on patrol to find out how many Germans were in a certain town, Hobbs’ unit advanced close enough to hear the enemy soldiers talking. Artillery was called for, and soon the big shells were going both ways.

“I got a shell-shock concussion,” said Hobbs, 95. “Many of my unit were bleeding out their ears. I was never allowed to go back into combat after that.”

Two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star later, Hobbs was the first veteran flier aboard a World War II Boeing Stearman biplane on Monday morning at the Rowan County Airport. Ageless Aviation Dreams Foundation has provided those historic planes to give “dream flights,” a free 20-minute tour over downtown Salisbury, that included the Memorial Day ceremonies at both the VA National Cemetery and the Cemetery Annex.

After his service in WWII, Hobbs lived in the Troutman area. He has been married for 58 years to Hattie.

“The flight was wonderful,” Hobbs said. “I have always hoped to fly back to France and England.”

Hobbs and the other Memorial Day fliers came from Oak Park Retirement. Although most were veterans, widows of veterans and those who serve the community also completed the application process and were given free flights.

“This is rewarding for our seniors,” said Oak Park activities director Karen Leonard. “Many of them still have things they want to do, and we do our best to provide the means to fulfill their requests. What an appropriate way to spend Memorial Day.”

After Army veteran Harold Barkley’s flight, he said, “This was a good ride. I was most amazed at the number of people at the VA cemetery. It was rather humbling. I was also amazed at how the highway system looks from the air.”

Barkley, 80, retired from the Army after 23 years of service with the rank of major, most of it spent with the Signal Corps. Part of that duty was at Nags Head, where he worked on a radar site.

Postwar, Barkley worked for 28 years in the Virginia Beach area. He married his childhood sweetheart after losing his first wife to cancer after a happy marriage of 58 years.

Maurine Gminder’s husband was an Army veteran who passed away after 57 years of marriage.

“He was here last year but didn’t want to fly,” she said. “He is now buried in the VA cemetery and we flew over it. I had just placed flowers on his grave Saturday. This flight was something of a reminder of my life. I grew up in the Suffolk, Virginia, area and used to see these planes used for pilot training around the Navy base.”

Gminder, now 89, wore her husband Albert’s ring around her neck during the flight.

Oak Park volunteer Helen Wooten, 78, is a retired research and development nurse.

“This was a brand new experience on a beautiful day, so pretty and fresh,” Wooten said. “After waiting for five years to do this, I jumped at my chance.”

Another volunteer, Diane Parker, said, “It was a wonderful experience partly because I wasn’t sure I would get to fly, but it was such a clear day that you could see forever.”

Ned Thomas, a Korean War Army veteran, had flown with AADF before.

“I was way less apprehensive this time,” Thomas said. “It was a very relaxing flight on a perfect day.”

Walter Leather and Wilbur Boltz, both WWII-era Navy veterans, had also experienced previous flights. Leather, the Oak Park official photographer, gathered more photos throughout the afternoon. Boltz, himself a pilot in earlier years, had not been in a plane since 1954 until AADF came to Salisbury last year.

Others who flew were Mary Ann Scunziano, Rusty Shaver and Anne Hollifield.

“All I wanted to do was take it all in,” Scunziano said.

Sport Clips is the primary sponsor of AADF and provides volunteers to assist with the dream flights. Ashli Neff, a Sport Clips manager for three years, returned for her second time to the Rowan airport.

“This is very rewarding,” she said. “I am so grateful to these fine people for our freedom. My son has been a Marine for about a year now and he loves it.”

Ageless Aviation Dreams Foundation is a nonprofit organization with the purpose of “Giving back to those that have given.” Three historic biplanes travel the country from March through Veterans Day offering dream flights. Go to www.agelessaviationdreams.org for more information.

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